Groups Arise, Spurred by Minneapolis Gun Violence, to Enact Early Interventions

Farji Shaheer, with NextStep, a hospital-based intervention program that works with victims of gun violence, speaks at a panel on gun violence on Oct. 22, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minn.

Farji Shaheer, with NextStep, a hospital-based intervention program that works with victims of gun violence, speaks at a panel on gun violence on Oct. 22, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minn. (Aaron Lavinsky | Star Tribune)

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September 2, 2021

He calls it the “vulnerable moment.”

It’s the roughly two-hour window after a shooting, stabbing or other violent episode in which Farji Shaheer says people are “more or less thanking God for being alive” and most receptive to offers of help. Once that moment passes, a victim — or those closest to them — is likely to fall back into the same bad habits that got them into trouble in the first place, said Shaheer, co-founder of the Next Step hospital intervention program, one of several initiatives that Minneapolis is betting on to reduce an alarming spike in gun violence.

“We’re dealing with hostile individuals who don’t trust easily,” said Shaheer, whose background is in mental health. “We’re dealing with a community that’s been shattered by every system.”

Shaheer and others who work to reduce violence say that despite growing interest in community-based prevention programs, the city could be doing more to engage the troubled young men who are most likely to experience violence. Without intervention, they say, today’s victim could become tomorrow’s shooter — or vice versa.

Several incidents in recent months seem to support that perspective.

In early July, a man was struck in the calf by a bullet while standing near a gas station on E. Lake Street, which police say was at least the third time he had witnessed or been the victim of a shooting in recent months. Two days later, a victim showed up at an area hospital after police say he was shot while driving in the Willard-Hay neighborhood; the man had previously been charged in a double shooting at a birthday party in the Near North neighborhood last summer. More recently, police issued an arrest order for a suspect in a homicide when the suspect was himself gunned down.

Sasha Cotton, who runs the city’s Office of Violence Prevention, said a person’s chances of being victimized has a lot to do with where and with whom they choose to hang out. As in most cities, much of Minneapolis’ violence is carried out by the same handful of people, she says, most of whom have had repeated contacts with the criminal justice system. Many have been the victims of violence before or have had someone close to them be killed or wounded. Cotton said their lives have also been shaped by systemic racism and structural inequity, with most growing up in tough environments that teach them that aggression is the only way to resolve conflict. So for many of them the perceived risks of not carrying a gun outweigh whatever punishment may come with getting arrested with one.

Next Step, which in March expanded to a third west-metro hospital, aims to “reprogram people’s thinking about violence and really teach them emotional regulation skills and de-escalation skills for themselves” as a way of keeping disputes from turning deadly, Cotton said.

Such efforts have a new relevance since the murder of George Floyd last summer, when Minneapolis became the epicenter of a nationwide movement to defund, or even disband, police departments in favor of new strategies for keeping communities safe. At the urging of activists, some city lawmakers have sought to adopt a public-health approach to fighting crime, voting last December to divert roughly $8 million from the Minneapolis Police Department’s $179 million budget to expand services like Next Step and MinneapolUS, which sends “violence interrupters” to defuse simmering conflicts before they erupt.

Another anti-crime program run out of the violence-prevention office that could benefit from the additional funding is Project LIFE, a collaboration between public health officials, police, probation officers and gang intervention workers, who meet every week to share information about recent shootings and strategize on how best to prevent further violence. After most gang shootings, outreach workers follow up with victims, hoping to talk them out of seeking revenge — offering help with education, mental health and substance use services, as long as they agree to put down their guns. Officials say they have used federal pandemic relief money to jump-start a youth-focused version of Project LIFE, dubbed “GVI Junior.”

Jump in violent crime

But some proponents worry that the gains made by programs like Next Step could be undone by aggressive measures taken in response to rising crime.

Minneapolis, much like other large U.S. cities, saw a jump in violent crime following Floyd’s death, a trend that has continued into this year. A Star Tribune database of homicides shows that even as property crime has largely receded, 63 people have been killed so far in 2021 — four more than this time last year — which experts have largely blamed on the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ease of access to illegal guns. The number wounded or killed by gunfire has jumped to 439 from 363 in that period, police crime statistics show.

In Minneapolis, the mounting number of shootings has set off ideological debates over how best to combat crime leading up to this fall’s citywide elections, when residents will vote on whether to replace the existing police force with a new agency that proponents say would seek to identify and address the root causes of crime. But, in recent months, the Council has come under increasing pressure to act, both from some community and faith leaders who blame it for the rise in violent crime and from activists, who worry that lawmakers are going back on their pledge to radically transform public safety.

When it comes to intervention, timing is everything, says Shaheer, who’s taken a step back from Next Step, in part to focus on running his own nonprofit, Innovative Solutions. Going through a traumatic event like a shooting causes people to temporarily lower their guard and makes them more open to considering lifestyle changes, he said.

Most of those he works with are in gangs and tend not to rely on the traditional criminal justice system, preferring to handle disputes themselves — more often than not with firearms. They are used to living under pressure and don’t trust easily, Shaheer says. Even when he assures them that he isn’t affiliated with the police, they wonder what the catch is.

Not every shooting victim will continue to be involved in gun violence, officials say. But, they point out, the chances of further violence rises with each hospitalization.

Programs like Next Step are built on a growing body of research that argues gun violence should be treated as a public health issue. Much like a disease, experts say, violence is contagious, but can also be prevented by targeting those who engage in risky behavior and are mostly responsible for its spread.

Jeffrey Butts said that while he is encouraged by the Biden administration’s public commitment to gun violence research, long hobbled by years of underfunding at the federal level, more attention needs to be paid to community-based programs that don’t rely on police intervention. For decades, cities embraced tough-on-crime policies that portrayed the perpetrators of violence as “monsters,” without addressing the hopelessness and severe trauma that many of them were experiencing, said Butts, the director of the research and evaluation center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

He said public outrage over rising violent crime reverses years of progress by prevention programs like Next Step, said Butts, while adding that further studies are needed to determine whether efforts that have shown promise in some cities would work elsewhere. Cotton said that NextStep has collected data about its clients since the program’s creation in 2016, but hasn’t yet undergone a serious examination of whether its goals are being met — a problem that she hoped will soon be solved with the recent hiring of a full-time researcher.

Fear of retaliation was one reason that Bishop Richard Howell started hiring more security to staff funerals at Shiloh Temple, a prominent church on the city’s North Side, knowing that such events can attract follow-up violence.

That point was driven home in mid-June, when 29-year-old Dontevius Catchings was shot dead at the funeral for a man who had been killed outside a downtown nightclub the month before. The alleged shooter, a 26-year-old local man, was arrested later and charged with second-degree murder.

Since then, Howell says he has started vetting families before agreeing to host the funerals of their loved ones.

“We wanna know the lifestyle of the decedent: Where do they come from? What role do they play in the community? Is anybody after them now? Is anybody after their family?” said Howell, while adding that he hasn’t had to turn any families away yet.

This story is part of a collaboration with the Star Tribune through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Libor Jany, Reporter, Star Tribune



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